The two Texans who head the Republican congressional campaign committees showed last weekend that, where federal finances are concerned, it’s easier to raise questions than provide answers.
Appearing with their Democratic counterparts on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. John Cornyn were pressing their case that President Barack Obama’s economic prescriptions haven’t worked when moderator David Gregory asked how a GOP Congress would cope with the budget deficit they readily decried.
“We’re going to balance the budget,” Sessions said. But when asked how, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee avoided specifics. Instead, he talked vaguely of “empowering the free enterprise system” in words that Democrats claimed — and he denied — suggested a return to Bush-style economics.
Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, gave a safer answer, but one that sounded better than it was.
“The president has a debt commission that reports Dec. 1,” the Texas senator replied. “My hope is that they’ll come back with a bipartisan solution to the debt and particularly entitlement reform.”
While that sounded hopeful, the fact is that it’s going to take a major change in GOP fiscal thinking for anything comprehensive to come from the 18-member panel that Obama named after the Senate refused to create one last January with most Republicans in opposition.
To be fair, recent weeks have seen some reason for hope of bipartisan cooperation in one key area, curbing future entitlement costs.
It came when top House Democratic and Republican leaders both proposed to cut long-term entitlement costs by raising the retirement age and curbing benefits for higher-income Social Security recipients.
“We could and should consider a higher retirement age, or one pegged to lifespan, (and) more progressive Social Security and Medicare benefits,” meaning less for those who need them the least, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a speech.
Similarly, GOP leader John Boehner told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “eventually getting the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken” and talked also of reducing or eliminating benefits to Americans with a “substantial non-Social Security income.”
But there’s no guarantee that the panel, co-chaired by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, will be able to agree on a long-term solution that covers all of the major aspects of the budget problem: entitlements, discretionary spending and taxes.
It will require support of at least 14 of its 18 members, and the panel includes six congressional GOP appointees who have been steadfast foes of tax increases.
But even if the commission fails to agree, lawmakers still will have to confront the deficit problem this year because the Bush tax cuts that have been one factor in the past decade’s debt explosion will expire without congressional action.
Obama and other top Democrats favor restoring higher rates for Americans earning more than $250,000, while maintaining the cuts for the great bulk of taxpayers earning less. Republicans almost certainly will push to extend all of the cuts, including capital gains and other provisions that primarily benefit wealthier taxpayers.
Last week, Sen. John Kyl, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, raised another complication when he said it would be all right to raise the deficit to pay for tax cuts. Republicans have insisted for months it’s wrong to do so to pay for additional spending, such as extending unemployment benefits.
“You do need to offset the cost of increased spending,” Kyl said July 11 on “Fox News Sunday.” “But you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”
Democrats immediately charged that Republicans were once more willing to do what they did when they controlled the White House and Congress, which is to raise the deficit to pay for tax breaks for wealthy Americans.
With Republicans continuing to favor maintaining across-the-board tax cuts, and Obama in the White House until at least January 2013, it’s hard to see any early resolution to the deficit problem, whatever the result of the November elections.